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Forever a futurist: The work of Pierre Cardin (1922-2020)

By Nora Veerman

4 Jan 2021

On July 20, 2019, Pierre Cardin witnessed the opening of his large retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. At 97 he was not present at the opening party - that was perhaps a bit much to ask - but he was closely involved in the development of the exhibition. This one had nineteen rooms, filled with clothes, accessories, furniture and other design pieces by his hand, unmistakably Cardin because of the futuristic shapes and materials.

Last week, the 98-year-old Cardin died in a hospital in Neuilly, west of Paris. "A day of grief for our family," the family wrote in a statement to AFP. "The great couturier leaves behind a unique artistic heritage to France and the world." Who was Pierre Cardin, and what made his work so special?

A breath of fresh air in haute couture

Pierre Cardin was born in 1922 in San Biagio di Callalta, a town in the north of Italy, near Venice. Two years later his family moved to France. As a teenager he became an apprentice to tailors in Saint-Etienne and Vichy, where he worked for the Red Cross during the Second World War.

After the war, he went to work in Paris at the couture house Paquin and did odd jobs for Schiaparelli. Two years later, in 1947, he was appointed head of the tailor's workshop at Dior. The fashion house still only had seven employees; in 1950 there would be eight hundred. Cardin is working with Christian Dior on the bar jacket, a central part of the New Look, the style that made Dior world famous in the late 1940s.

In 1950, not yet thirty, Cardin left Dior to start his own fashion house. His own designs seem to match the classic couture look of the 1950s: elegant, structured silhouettes with pronounced volumes, characteristic of the work of Dior, Givenchy and Balenciaga. Cardin's looks are young and quirky, with low waists reminiscent of 1920s flapper fashion, soft lines and curvy shapes. In 1953 Cardin was admitted to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. The balloon-shaped 'bubble dress' that he presents the following year is a big hit, as are his creations with geometric shapes and cut-outs.

A commercial adventure

In 1959, Cardin was temporarily kicked out of the Chambre Syndicale. That year he designed a ready-to-wear collection for the Printemps department store, a commercial foray that will cost him dearly in the elite couture circle. "Ready-to-wear is the only way to make money," he told WWD in 1967. When it becomes clear how lucrative ready-to-wear can be - and how useful for the couture houses, which are struggling with declining customer numbers - Cardin is welcome back to the Chambre.

In the decades that followed, Cardin continued to challenge the classic couture world, both aesthetically and professionally. His creations are characterized by a fascination with technology, architecture and space travel. In 1960 he released a ready-to-wear collection for men consisting of narrow, streamlined suits worn by mass idols like the Beatles and Gregory Peck. In the same decade, Cardin introduced its Space Age collections, inspired by NASA's space projects. The collections include tops, pants and short sundresses with clean lines and bright colors, made from unconventional tech materials such as PVC. Cardin also develops its own material, Cardine, which can be deformed by means of heat and is therefore extremely suitable for Cardin's three-dimensional form experiments.

Most notable, however, are Cardin's marketing tactics. In 1959, he applied large marks to the outside of his designs for the first time, something that is hardly ever done in the fashion world. Cardin is also actively involved in licensing . His name and logo appear not only on clothing and accessories, but also on tables, forks, chairs, lamps, curtains, watches, and even airplanes. Not only objects, but also locations bear the name of Cardin from the 1970s. In 1970, the 'Espace Pierre Cardin' opened on Avenue Gabriel in Paris, a theater, restaurant, cinema and exhibition space all in one. In 1981 Cardin bought the Parisian restaurant Maxim's, which he expanded into a chain.

“I eat from my own plate. Drink from my own glasses. Wash with my own soap. Wear my own perfume. I sleep in my own bed linen. I have my own food products. I can sit in my own armchair," Cardin said in an interview with WWD in 2008. “I'm probably the only man in the world who can say that."

Cardin continued to work on his empire until his death. At the age of 86, the designer told Fantastic Man, "I am too busy to complain and cry about a toothache and sore feet. When I go underground, I do it standing up. The paint may peel off, but my talent is still intact. " It is not without reason that his family praised his 'unceasing energy' in the obituary.

Cardin's Heritage

Anyone encountering Cardin's early designs forty or fifty years later in exhibits such as the one in the Brooklyn Museum will feel as though they are traveling through time. Not to the past, but to the future. Cardin's designs still look undeniably modern in 2020, with bold colors and shapes that seem to contradict gravity. It is not without reason that Cardin is considered a source of inspiration for contemporary designers, including Simon Porte Jacquemus.

Cardin's business innovations have changed the fashion world forever. The use of logos and licenses continues to make fashion companies global players to this day.

What does the future of the fashion house look like? The company is being taken over by Cardin's second cousin, Rodrigo Basilicati Cardin, the family reports in a statement. It is not yet clear who will take on the artistic direction. Last year, Cardin told AFP that he had three designers and stylists in mind to fill the empty space in his studio in the future. Who will eventually accept the challenge? That remains a surprise for the time being.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL, translated and edited to English by Kelly Press.

Image: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum